In this extract from a new book on the future of Channel 4, Lorraine Heggessey talks to leading TV producers about the impact of the broadcaster on the indie sector.
The history, growth and success of the flourishing independent production sector is inextricably linked with Channel 4, which still has no in-house production department and commissions all its programmes from external suppliers.
Charlie Pattinson, founder first of Company Pictures and then of New Pictures says: ‘The rise of the producer entrepreneur would not have happened without the support of Channel 4. They are entirely responsible for the way the landscape is now.’
Channel 4 has supported many indies through their early days with development deals, or more latterly through the Alpha Fund, which was established to help start ups, regionally-based companies and projects involving diverse talent. In 2014 CEO David Abraham set up the Growth Fund, which invests in start-ups as well as small to medium sized indies looking to take their business to the next level.
Pattinson and co-founder of Company Pictures, George Faber had both been star BBC producers, but by 1998 both felt that they were in a creative strait jacket which spurred them into branching out on their own. At that time there were only a handful of production companies that did drama, partly because it was difficult to be economically viable with the long lead times that drama entails. ‘Part of the reason we survived was that Channel 4 did a first-look deal with us right at the beginning.’
That deal provided Company Pictures with the cash to keep them afloat whilst they focused on the lengthy process of developing new dramas and securing their first commissions. They went on to deliver two of the channel’s breakout drama series, Skins and Shameless.
Nick Curwin, who with fellow producer Magnus Temple set up two factual indies, Firefly and The Garden, found Channel 4’s support crucial in both cases. ‘We started Firefly in 2004 without any commissions or even any paid development. We only had a three-month window with which to get cash flow or we’d have to fold. We didn’t have any savings and we both had babies and mortgages. Channel 4 approached us and asked if we wanted a development deal of £20,000 in return for pitching them a couple of ideas a month. It was just a fantastic thing to do, because apart from having a little bit of cash to help with our development, it was something that we could announce that Channel 4 was doing and it showed faith in us because we weren’t at all well known at the time.’
That faith was well founded as the company went on to deliver one of its biggest hits, One Born Every Minute, and was the main driver behind the ‘fixed rig’ show which revolutionised the way observational documentaries were made because you no longer had to have a film crew in the room.
Having sold Firefly to Shine, part of a pattern of consolidation that was growing in the indie sector, Curwin and Temple left after three years to set up The Garden. Curwin says: ‘The breakthrough for us was 24 Hours in A & E. It was a commission of scale that changed everything – 14 episodes! We had intended The Garden to be boutique and tiny but obviously nobody in their right mind would turn down a commission like that.’ That was clearly the right decision, as they are up to 134 episodes, and partly as a result of this success The Garden was bought by ITV Studios in 2013.
The story of the genesis of 24 Hours in A & E is a good illustration of the way Channel 4 incubates ideas. Nick Curwin: ‘It’s part of a line which starts with Going Cold Turkey, which nobody’s ever heard of, which we made for C4 about heroin addicts trying to give up. We had to find a way to film it without anyone being in the room so we borrowed the tricks of Big Brother and used remote cameras. We realised this was an interesting way of filming. You could be in private spaces that you otherwise wouldn’t get access to and it felt very unmediated but was also very emotional. So we brainstormed what else we could do with it and we ended up making The Family. That was the first proper rig show and then we did One Born Every Minute.’
Curwin insists that what made that evolution possible was the way in which Channel 4 commissioners worked with producers: ‘There was a particular way of working at the channel, which was one of the reasons those things came off. It was very intimate and you sort of buddied up with somebody you got on with, (in our case that was commissioning editor, Simon Dickson), and you talked and talked and had meetings and lunches. There was a mutual desire to come up with something clever and new and interesting. We were very hungry to do something original so we were constantly trying to cook something up. I passionately believe that the whole evolution of the rig show is an absolutely direct consequence of C4’s behaviour and its very particular way of working with producers.’
Channel 4 is not just an incubator of ideas and talent; it remains an incubator of production businesses and believes it is important to back new and emerging companies to keep the sector vibrant. In the current era of large consolidated groups such as All3 Media and Endemol Shine, the channel could take the easy option of commissioning from tried and tested suppliers. But it doesn’t. It provides many companies with their first commissions, working with around fifty new suppliers every year and proactively supporting companies in the nations and regions. This is demonstrated by the way it has increased the proportion of its spend on indies with a turnover of £25million or less from 8% in 2011 to 28% in 2013.
Channel 4 invested in Leeds-based True North through the Growth Fund. Their Creative Director and Co-Founder, Jess Fowle believes this helped them to have their best year ever: ‘It felt like a really good fit for us. It’s not that we get any special treatment, but particularly as an out-of-London company it gives you a connection to the heart of the industry that we wouldn’t otherwise have. We’ve been able to beef up our development department significantly and go from something that was rather ad hoc to something that is proactive and significant. We’ve also put money into trying to promote our formats in the States in a way we wouldn’t have been able to before. We’re in a much more ambitious place than we were prior to the investment.’
We meddle at our peril
I am in no doubt that the British broadcasting landscape would change dramatically if Channel 4 were to be privatised. It’s hard for this kind of experimentation to sit hand in hand with the drive for profits that shareholders would expect. Channel 4 feeds ideas and talent into the airwaves that has an impact on all our broadcasters as well as on the production sector. We meddle with that ecosystem at our peril. I say leave it alone.
Lorraine Heggessey is Chair of The Grierson Trust and the independent external advisor to Channel 4’s Growth Fund.
This is an extract from new book What Price Channel 4? (Eds Edited by John Mair, Fiona Chesterton, Ian Reeves, Richard Tait and David Lloyd). Published by Abramis on June 7th. It is available now at a special price for Televisual readers of £15.00 (normally £19.95) from firstname.lastname@example.org or from Amazon